Last week in How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part I, I showed you exactly how to identify the key of a piece, including some tricks to help you name any key quickly. If you’ve missed it, I suggest that you start there before reading Part II.
This week, in How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part II, I’ll be showing you how to apply what we learned in Part I to construct major and minor scales, arpeggios and chords and how practising these will help you familiarise yourself with the key signatures.
PART 2: How to familiarise yourself with the key signatures
Knowing how to identify the major and minor key signatures is helpful, but this alone will not help you to sight-read in any key. What will help you is to know everything there is to know about the major and minor keys. This means learning how to play the scales, the chords and the arpeggios of each key. It means knowing the fingering, the white and black key patterns, the feel of the keys in the hand and how it sounds. And of course, the best way to learn all this is by practising!
Why you need to know your scales, chords and arpeggios
Why the scales, chords and arpeggios? Because these are found everywhere in music and in all styles of music. They form the basis of any piece of music. The more familiar you are with the scales, chords and arpeggios, the quicker you’ll be at identifying meaningful chunks of music (see How to Become a Sight-Reading Expert where I explain this concept), AND the better you’ll be at predicting what might comes next in a piece of music. This, in turn, will dramatically speed up your sight-reading.
Let me show you some examples.
In this excerpt, the melody is based on the scale of G major (the key of the piece):
Here, the right hand plays chords in B-flat minor:
And in this excerpt, there are G major arpeggios in both hands:
Take (almost) any piece of music for piano, and you’ll see parts of scales, arpeggios in one form or another, and/or chords.
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you at how useful it is to know your scales, chords and arpeggios, let’s look at how they are formed.
A scale is the arrangement of notes in an ascending or descending order. There are many types of scales, the most commonly known ones for Western music being major, minor, pentatonic and blues. The major and minor scales are made up of seven pitches, the first of which is the name of the scale. For example, the one-octave scale of C major would start on C then D, E, F, G, A, B and C again:
Have you noticed how every major scale sounds the same? This is because the order of tones and semitones (or halftones) is the same for each. The order is tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone and semitone. An easier way to remember this order is to remember where the semitones are because they are only two. One semitone is between the 3rd and 4th notes, and the other between the 7h and 8th notes.
For example, the C major scale is:
And, to take another example, the D major scale is:
There are three types of minor scales: the natural minor, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. Rather than look at the order of tones and semitones for each like we did for the major scale, let’s look at the characteristics of these three minor scales.
We’ll use G minor as an example.
From Part I, we know that G minor is the relative minor of B-flat major (by counting up 3 semitones from G, you get B-flat) and B-flat has two flats, which are B and E flat.
The natural minor scale is the minor scale in its natural form. Therefore the natural minor scale of G minor is:
In the harmonic minor scale, the 7th note, also called the leading note, is raised by one semitone. So the F – which is the 7th note of the scale – becomes F-sharp:
What you end up with is an interval of an augmented second between the 6th and 7th notes, in this case, between E-flat and F-sharp:
This interval is what is characteristic of the harmonic minor scale. A little trick to remember this fact is to think of this augmented second is a big interval doing “harm” to the fingers because of the stretch! So think “harm” for the harmonic scale.
For the melodic minor scale, the 6th and 7th notes are both raised by one semitone but only on the way up. On the way down, both notes are back to normal, which means the scale is just like the natural minor scale.
Ascending G melodic minor scale:
Descending G melodic minor scale:
Which minor scales should you practise?
Luckily, you don’t need to practise all three! But you do need to practise the harmonic and melodic scales, which are the most useful ones. This is because they both frequently appear in minor pieces. In Part I, I showed you the following excerpt – which happens to be in G minor – and mentioned that the notes in the rectangles were clues that the piece was in a minor key:
Do you see now how the E natural and the F-sharp come straight from an ascending G melodic minor scale? So spotting these notes can help identify minor keys.
The most common fingering for the major and minor scales, if starting on a white key,
- when ascending, is:
1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 in the right hand
5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 in the left hand
- when descending, is the same in reverse, that is:
5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1 in the right hand
1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 in the left hand
The fingering will vary for scales starting on a black key. It is recommended that you learn the proper fingering for each scale, but as a rule of thumb (no pun intended!), the thumb almost always follows a black key when ascending, and precedes a black key when descending. And avoid using the thumb on black keys.
A book I recommend that contains all the major and minor scales, chords and arpeggios with fingering as well as a section on theory is The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences.
A chord is a group of notes that are played together. It is typically made up of three or more notes. The major and minor chords in root position – meaning that the bottom note is the first note of the scale – are made up of the first, third and fifth (and sometimes 8th) notes of the scale. For example, a G major chord would be G, B and D, OR G, B, D and G:
N.B.: For simplicity, we will stick to 3-note chords here (also called triads) but remember that the chords I’m showing here can also be written as 4-note chords with the top note being the octave of the bottom note.
As I’ve explained in How to Sight-Read Both Clefs at the Same Time, a chord can appear as a root position chord, a first inversion chord or a second inversion chord. So a G major chord can appear in any of these forms:
To obtain a 1st inversion chord, flip the bottom note of the root position chord to the top (as shown by the arrows in the above example). And to obtain the 2nd inversion chord, flip the bottom note of the 1st inversion chord to the top. The fingering for these three versions is 1-3-5, 1-2-5 and 1-3-5 in the right hand, and 5-3-1, 5-3-1- and 5-2-1 in the left hand.
The first, third and fifth notes of G minor are G, B-flat and D so those notes would be the notes of a G minor chord:
Notice the differences between a major and a minor chord:
A major chord consists of a major third at the bottom and a minor third at the top. A minor chord consists of a minor third at the bottom and a major third at the top.
An arpeggio is simply a broken chord, meaning that each note of the chord is played one at a time, starting from the bottom note to the top note. So a one-octave G major arpeggio would be G, B, D, G, D, B and G:
A G minor arpeggio would be:
How to practise the scales, chords and arpeggios
Here are several ways you could practise the scales, chords and arpeggios:
- One key a week
- All major keys (starting with C major, then D-flat major, D major, etc.)
- All minor keys – melodic and harmonic (starting with C minor, then C-sharp minor, D minor, etc.)
- All major and minor keys (each major scale with its relative minor scale, starting with C major)
- Key(s) of your sight-reading pieces
- Key(s) of your pieces
- Following the order of the Circle of Fifths (starting with C major then all the scales with the sharps such as G major, with one sharp, D major, with two sharps, etc. then all the keys F major with one flat, B-flat major with two flats, E-flat, etc.)
If your primary goal is to be able to sight-read pieces in any key, then I suggest that you do ONE key a week, starting with C major then its relative minor key (A minor) the following week, then G major with one sharp the following week, then its relative minor (E minor) etc. until you’ve done all the major and minor keys with sharps. Then do the same for all the major and minor keys with flats.
As you can imagine, this method will take time, but the advantage is that it will allow you enough time to really get to know each key. And of course, if you feel you need more time for a particular key, extend to two or more weeks.
For each key, I suggest you do the following at each practice session:
- Practise the scale (ascending and descending, 2 or 4 octaves)
- Practise the arpeggio (ascending and descending, 2 or 4 octaves)
- Practise the chord (root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion)
- Sight-read pieces ONLY in that key
How to find music in a particular key
You’ll need to find music in any given key, but this is easier said than done! Here are a few ways that I can think of (if you think of other ways, let me know in the comments below):
Using sight-reading books that contain pieces arranged by key
This is by far the easiest way. Two excellent resources I recommend for this purpose are Piano Sight-Reading: A Fresh Approach 1-3 and Sight-Reading Exercises Op. 45 Books I-III. The former contains pieces with up to 5 sharps or flats. The latter contains pieces with up to 4 flats and 3 sharps.
Using sets of pieces in all major and minor keys
Another way is to get sets of pieces that have been composed in all keys.
N.B.: These pieces are generally advanced so I would only recommend these sets to advanced sight-readers.
Here are some examples:
- 24 Preludes and Fugues by Bach
- 24 Preludes, Op. 28 by Chopin
- Transcendental Études, S. 139 by Liszt (covers the keys with flats only)
- 12 Études d’exécution transcendante, Op. 11 Lyapunov (covers the keys with sharps only)
- 25 Preludes, Op. 31 & the 24 Etudes, Op. 35 and 39 by Alkan
- 24 Preludes, Op. 11 by Scriabin
- 24 Preludes, Op. 23, and 32 by Rachmaninoff
- 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 by Shostakovich
Using online resources
You can find pieces in particular keys by searching on free online sheet music websites like imslp.org, musescore.com, free-scores.com and others. Just type “piano + [desired key]” (for example, “piano C major’) in the search box and it will list piano pieces in that key.
You can also search pieces by key signature on 8notes.com by clicking on the relevant box:
However, the number of pieces available on 8notes.com is quite limited as are the search features of the free sheet music websites I’ve listed above. If you want to find a much larger selection of pieces which you can search by sight-reading difficulty, number of sharps or flats, composer, title or style, go to this page: Free Piano Sheet Music (Searchable).
Transposing pieces into other keys
If you have time on your hands, you could transpose pieces into other keys, but you’d first have to input the notes into a music notation software, either by hand or by playing them on a midi keyboard…
That’s it for this week! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.
> Want to review what you just learned? Then take this short quiz:
Next week, in the final part of How to Sight-Read in Any Key, I will give you specific exercises you can do in all keys so that you can master them all.
Until then, happy sight-reading / practising!
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